Colby Cosh: A farewell to Niki Lauda, Austria’s blunt, intimidating auto racing god

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Lauda burned for 55 seconds before fellow drivers pulled him free from his crashed car. Forty days later, he turned up to practice for the 1976 Italian Grand Prix

In this July 7, 2018 file photo former Formula One World Champion Niki Lauda of Austria walks in the paddock before the third free practice at the Silverstone racetrack, Silverstone, England.Luca Bruno / AP

Niki Lauda, the three-time world drivers’ champion, died on Monday at the age of 70. Lauda was known in the world of Formula One racing to be recovering poorly from the lung transplant he received in August. But the news still came as a shock to F1 fans, and to his home country of Austria, where he was second in fame only to Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Some racing drivers are symbols of youth and elegance. Often they are beautiful, perhaps owing to the nimbus of risk surrounding them, in a way rarely encountered in other sports. Lauda, even before the dreadful 1976 accident that mutilated his face and shortened his life, was nicknamed the Rat. He was a symbol of other things that motorsport, at its best, rewards: intellect, determination, precision. Above all he represented will: the will to live, the will to conquer, the will to behave and speak as he pleased. He boasted of having no friends on Earth and of needing none, yet few in his profession received more reverence and affection.

Like many racing drivers Lauda was a rich kid, descended from industrialists. But his people expected him to get an education, and he loathed school, even though his physics knowledge would later set him apart from other drivers. Articles about Lauda talk about his background as a psychological matter, as if his family merely grumbled at his aspirations. In fact, as one of F1’s notorious “pay drivers,” he used his surname to obtain piles of bank credit in a somewhat unsavoury way, and his father actively interfered with his career. Niki might have landed in prison if he hadn’t succeeded in racing at the highest level.

Above all he represented will: the will to live, the will to conquer, the will to behave and speak as he pleased

The most famous example of the iron Lauda will is certainly the ’76 accident, which was restored to the popular imagination as the central event of the 2013 Ron Howard movie Rush. It’s an excellent movie leavened with a small amount of Hollywood stupidity — or, to use Niki’s favourite word, “Schwachsinn.” Lauda assisted the actor Daniel Bruhl with his uncanny impersonation and contributed to the publicity for the movie, knowing that it would help cement his legacy. Nobody could stop him from telling reporters that the movie is about “80 per cent accurate.”

As the movie chronicles, Lauda was coasting to a second consecutive world championship in 1976 when he had a wreck at the Nürburgring in western Germany — the long, unsafe forest highway that Jackie Stewart dubbed “the Green Hell.” Lauda, after leading an unsuccessful attempt to have the race cancelled, spun out in the wet after one lap and hit a barrier. A catch-fence pulled his helmet off, exposing his head. His Ferrari caught fire. Half-conscious in the car, he burned for 55 seconds before fellow drivers pulled him free.

Forty days after the crash, drivers, journalists, and colleagues who had been expecting to attend Lauda’s funeral were astonished when he turned up to practice for the Italian Grand Prix at Monza. His comeback, he later admitted, was hasty. He needed a new, larger helmet to fit over his bandaged head. His right ear had been seared to a nub. He joked that having his sweat glands destroyed by fire would be an advantage. Trembling and blood-soaked, he finished fourth in the race.

The movie tells the rest of the story: how Lauda tried to defend his title against rival James Hunt, but bowed out on the last day of the season, unwilling to finish another wet race at Suzuka. (The team offered to tell journalists that the car had broken down. Lauda refused.) Ferrari had given a contract to the Argentinian driver Carlos Reutemann when it appeared that Lauda might not recover from his lung injuries; Lauda, disappointed and angry, ran up enough points to clinch another title in 1977 and then quit Ferrari outright before that year’s Canadian Grand Prix.

He switched to Brabham, and extracted a fat contract from tight-fisted team owner Bernie Ecclestone, but he endured two unsuccessful seasons in a poorly designed car before quitting in 1979 (again playing hooky in Canada). He spent the next few years away from racing, trying to transform his charter airline Lauda Air into a serious competitor to the Austrian national flag carrier. The resulting struggle against regulators led him to return to Formula One in 1982 to earn ready money.

Paired at Team McLaren with faster, younger Alain Prost, Lauda won a third title on 1984 on guile and technique. The margin was one-half of one point. Lauda won his home race in Austria for the only time that year; he lost fourth gear while in front, which should have cost him the championship, but Nelson Piquet, closing in, failed to interpret Lauda’s trouble and did not dare to overtake.

Naturally, this earned Piquet some friendly teasing about his Schwachsinn. But who wouldn’t be intimidated by Lauda, knowing — and seeing — what he had overcome to compete? It is not often mentioned, but Lauda’s Nürburgring crash actually did end a Formula One career. Chris Amon, an experienced New Zealand driver, refused to restart that race, was immediately fired by his team, and went home to the antipodes, declaring that “he’d seen too many people fried in racing cars.” The man who had been inside the fire would remain in Formula One through another decade, a hero among heroes.

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